Friday, September 30, 2016

Dixon Mower: Rolled the Dice, Came up Craps

At one point in our lives we lived in a 50's era house on the edge of a small town with just shy of an acre of nicely groomed land.

I was away at work all week (As in away, since it was too far to commute daily so I lived in the parking lot at the office.) and my weekends were focused on building the barn/living-quarters 30 miles away on our 14 acres.

When we first bought the house the yard had been neglected so we hired the realtor's high-school son to come over and mow, but oddly enough my wife, freaked out by spiders especially, and bugs in general, and phobic about walking on anything other than pavement or groomed gravel, decided she kind of liked the idea of mowing the grass.

That's how we ended up with a Dixon ZTR 42" deck mower. Turned out to be a great choice. She loved zipping around the yard on that thing, spinning around in it's own length, and especially the part about being able to just jerk the handles backwards to instantly back up. (Comes in handy when you see a spider web inches before you run into it!!)

When it was new the mower looked about like this.

That was 13 years ago and the mower looks more like this now.

Not bad, but the seat cushion is held on with a couple ropes, the grass chute has been smashed off, a few tires have been replaced and I've taking a long steel pry-bar to the front bumper to bend it back up where it doesn't interfere with the front castors.

Oh yeah, we still have the mower.

Even though the house on the edge of town is gone, even though we no longer have a billiard-table smooth yard to mow, even though the suspension-less beast will beat the crap out of you when carelessly zipping across our fields, we still use it.

Once a month, when I'm checking all the tire pressures and oil levels on everything, when I'm exercising all the various engines we have, I use it to cut paths between our buildings and up to the gate.

It's hard to tell here, but the vegetation on either side is waist high, and at certain times of the year, twice in our climate, the burrs will coat your legs like 70's era fuzzy-yarn legwarmers, so having some cleared paths to move around on comes in handy.

The battery has long since died so the process is to start the tractor, back it halfway out of the barn, use jumper cables to get the mower running, back the tractor up out of the way and then set out on the mower, either hunched over so the curve in my spine acts as a spring or with my feet braced hard and my back arched against the back of the seat so my butt isn't transferring the shock of every little bump and dip straight into my spine.

But the other day, when I engaged the mower-deck clutch there was a terrible grinding noise and I left a swath of uncut field behind. It looked like a mohawk, trimmed on either side and still long and raggedy up the middle.

Of the three blades under the deck the middle one was spinning freely on it's shaft, which pretty much meant that it wasn't spinning at all, which sort of defeats the purpose.

So I rolled the Dixon into the main barn and dropped the deck out from underneath.

That sounds so blasé when I write it, but when squinching around on my back on the concrete of a near 100 degree barn floor trying to jamb my hands into places they don't fit to pull cotter-pins and remove guide-bars, it's a pain in the ass!!!

A little work with my largest adjustable and pipe wrenchs (I don't have an impact socket large enough to fit the nut.) showed that even though the nut was tight, tightening it up another quarter-turn tamed that errant center blade in a very small fraction of the time it had taken me to drop the deck.

And after all that effort it seemed a shame to remount the deck just like that, so I went ahead and pulled all the blades and worked them over on the bench grinder (with a bucket of water right there so I didn't pull the temper out of the metal.) then put them back on again.

And while I was at it I took a look at the belts, honest!!

There's three on this mower, one to spin the three blades, one to drive the shaft that turns the belt that spins the three blades, and one more which is the main drive belt.

None of them were new, but there wasn't anything seriously bad looking about any of them, no missing bits, no deep cracks, no delamination, so eventually I reversed the disassembly process and got the deck back under the mower and operational again.

All in all it only took about half the day. (If you don't count the day and a half of recovery time and the two weeks it's going to take for that split knuckle to heal. . .) 

But less than 30 minute's run-time later I was dead in the field. . .

Yep, that main drive belt failed spectacularly!


Of course it's a 41 X 1/2 belt and the closest thing I had in the shop was the 43 X 1/2 spare for the tractor, so after dragging the stranded mower back up to the barn with said tractor I had to make a 30 mile round-trip to town to get a belt.

Then not only drop the mower deck once again, but this time also remove the electric clutch, (For engaging/disengaging the mower deck drive) and 4 wire flap-guards (To keep the main drive belt from flapping around when in neutral and jumping off the pulleys.) to get the new belt on.

Then readjust the  flap-guards

reinstall the electric clutch

and rehang the deck under the mower

and finally, push it out of the barn by hand to get it within jumper-cable reach of the tractor.

Sometimes you win

       Sometimes you come up craps. . .

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Monument Rocks

About 200 miles due south of the Golden Spike Tower and North Platte, Nebraska, which puts you well into Dorthy's Kansas, is a pretty cool place called Monument Rocks which is, apparently, one of the 8 wonders of Kansas

I didn't know there was such a thing as 8 wonders of Kansas, but in my ignorance I've still managed to sample one of them before, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and I almost made it to another, the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, but lack of camping spots and high prison walls had me moving on without checking the museum out.

Unless you count unpaved roads and cattle-guards, there were no such impediments keeping me from checking out Monument Rocks.

Now, to manage expectations and keep you from going all touristy-postal on me when you get there, I guess I should clarify my own personal definition of coolness.

Nobody is going to be breaking out the Panaflex and using these Monument Rocks as the unaccredited background character in their sweeping cinematographic masterpiece. There will be no buzzing swarms of helicopter tours for those with money but no time. You will find no fleet of shuttles attempting to alleviate the crushing influx of auto-born drive-by's. And if you were looking forward to overpriced, watered-down refreshments and $10 snacks that taste like cardboard left out in the rain for a few days, well then you better bring your own because there's no circling of greedy vendors out here either, in fact there's no vendors of any kind for nearly 20 miles in any direction.

And in case you haven't figured out my own personal quirks yet, for me any of the above would only tarnish the coolness of Monument Rocks.

Many, many years ago I was in Kansas for some reason that's no longer important. By the way, that's what those of us that are old enough to start finding our 'stuff' in museums say when we can't remember that far back anymore. Though I contend it's not because we forget, it's just that after enough years there's just so much to remember!

Anyway, I found myself on a network of dirt roads in the middle of miles and miles of blooming sunflowers. You would think I would have taken the opportunity to burn up several rolls of film - told you it was a long time ago! - but if I did, and I have the feeling I wasn't smart enough back then, I no longer have those images and now every time I get anywhere near Kansas I think about that lost opportunity and keep my eyes open for those sunflowers, but so far I haven't been able to find the right curtain to pull back and those bright yellow, smiling faces have been even more elusive than Dorthy's Wizard.

Though the remnants of overnight showers railing against the rising sun did provide their own version of curtains as I headed south.

Which was a bit of a concern because there's no pavement where I'm headed and I know, up close and personal, how slick some of these unpaved Kansas roads can get.  (Don't ask!)

But fortunately the showers dissipated as the sun climbed, picking up their skirts and slipping off to wherever prairie clouds go to build  up strength for their next dark and blustery sweep across the hills.

and it wasn't long before the only thing marring the view through the windshield was mashed bugs.

Which was good because almost exactly 20 miles from the Centrex station at the intersection of US highways 83 and 40, I hung a left onto seven miles of unpaved road.

About five miles after leaving the highway I came around a rise at the corner of what my map, giving up in this maze of faint, dusty trails, lists as Local or Rural Road and Local or Rural Road, and got my first glimpse of Monument Rocks.

A mile and half and one turn later I realized the road actually runs right through the Rocks.

There's no gated entry shack manned by a T-shirted volunteer out here, just a couple lonely cattle-guards, one just to the south and another a couple miles to the north.

And this is as close as it gets to a Visitor's Center.

You see, this formation is actually on private range land and it's only through the courtesy of the owner that I'm allowed to get off the county road and wander around for a closer look.

Not surprisingly, that's called The Eye of the Needle right there in front of The Van.

For perspective, Monument Rocks rise about 70 feet from the prairie grasses.

These crumbly chips, soft enough to grind to dust with my fingers, are laying all around the base of the rocks. This used to be sea-bottom layered with eons of carbonate deposits, but now some 80 million years of tectonic upheaval, wind and water has left only the strongest spires.

Think of the White Cliffs of Dover. Now think of the spectacular videos of chunks of the cliffs falling off into the sea.


This stuff is really fragile and these formations will only last another blink of the geologic eye. From my own puny perspective I can intellectualize, but I can't truly conceive of how long that will be. I only know that my own personal time is not even a speck of talc-like dust on the finger of the Universe, but I rejoice that I had the opportunity to use a few hours of my brief spark to ponder in their shadow.

Once the crop-duster, working somewhere out of sight to the north when I first got here, finished up and left the area, the only sound was the unbroken ringing of tinnitus that is my constant companion. (To paraphrase Ed and Patsy Bruce's song; 'Mammas, don't let your children grow up to work in a 70's era shipyard'!!)



It was so quiet

I actually heard this guy's footsteps before I saw him.

Though, given that this was the only side he'd let me see, I take it he would rather I not have seen or heard him at all.

The tiny Kestrel Hawk is supposed to hang out around here but I didn't see any.

I did see several of these Horned Larks messing around on the ground, though I couldn't seem to get any of the males with their tiny little feather-horns, barely larger than a gnat's eyelash, to pose for me.

And these Sparrows, (Vesper??) had the high ground.

I'm not sure who builds these nests as none of the current winged wildlife seemed the least bit interested, but they're all over the formations on the east side of the county road. (For some reason I didn't see many of these on the formations on the west side of the road. Maybe not enough overhangs?)


Other than fences, in this greatly zoomed view to the south was the only visible indication of human inhabitants. Judging by the power poles that suddenly stop their marching advancement down there at the creek-bottom, there must be a dwelling of some sort nestled in the trees off to the right of the photo, but I couldn't see any roof-lines, sun-on-glass glints, or movement down there at all.

As far as this part of the world was concerned, though scared and marked by others of my species, at this point in time I was the only human intruder. But the day was wearing on so it was time to leave this place to get on with the business of being undisturbed.

OK, when I drove down this road three or four hours ago to get to Monument Rocks it was empty horizon to horizon.

But as I was trying to leave there were cows everywhere!

Including this little guy that, just as I was trying to get by, decided this particular piece of road was a great place to play around on.

But he wasn't the problem, a little patience and he got tired of this game and moved off, it was the white bull there to the right that was the problem! (You'll have to zoom in for a glimpse of the tackle because I wasn't getting any closer than I had to!!)

You see how he's giving me the evil eye? Well he never broke eye-contact the whole time I was within range.

I don't know if he thought I was looking at some of his ladies with just a little too much interest, or if he just has a mean streak in him and was working up to something I wasn't going to like, but he was freaking me out!! (A bull recently killed an experienced rancher out in an open pasture a few miles from our place.)

But eventually I managed to squeak on by, staying way over there on the left. And after that - well - all I had to do was make it to the next cattle-guard before the bull could. Though - come to think of it - a few years ago our neighbor's bull learned to jump over the cattle-guard at the end of their driveway. . .

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Confused? No Dinner for You Then

OK, if you were a spider

               No, no. Seriously!

                          If you were a spider and could spit proteinaceous silk out your ass

                                 which spot would you choose to build a web?


          Here, (red arrow)  flat against the side of The Van?

                                             Or here, (green arrow) catching the breezes in the wheelwell?

Well apparently not all spiders got the memo (Maybe the day she skipped school was the day they taught everything.) because for some reason this spider though it would be a good idea to just lay the web flat against the side of The Van in hopes that a bug would, by chance, just come walking by and get trapped. (Because - well - you know, so many bugs get tired of flying around and take to ambulatory means of locomotion instead.)

Or maybe that was a practice web and once she had the knack she moved over here to a much more suitable location for her web, which, judging by the hole in it, was successful.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Golden Spike Tower; The Freight

 When it comes to rail yards,


even though  engines,


 the facilities that service them,

and hump yards,

are the sexy side of the experience,

freight is what pays the bills.  

So it's the lowly

and often abused freight cars that are the real workhorses of the railroad.

So mixed in with all the sexy stuff at Bailey Yard, are the receiving and departure yards where the real money is.

(Because the yard is so large, my perch up there in the Golden Spike Tower wasn't high enough to get a clear view of everything, so I have reverted to Google Earth images to give a better sense of the place.)

In addition, you may have noticed a large area along the entire north edge of Bailey Yard that I haven't touched on yet.

This is called the storage yard and I count 42 tracks up there, none of them short!

You might remember from the post on engine facilities, that there is a fueling station for eastbound through-trains that won't be changing engines and don't need any sorting. These are called unit-trains, where every car is loaded with the same thing and headed to the same destination.

A closer look at the photo above shows that many of these unit-trains are loaded with coal, mostly from Wyoming mines, headed for eastern power plants.

Now, of course, before each of these cars was loaded with bulk freight, it was empty, and since moving this bulk freight generates a large chunk of the the railroad's revenue,

it would be a bad deal to run out of empties. In fact you might say it could be a career changer to run out of empties! To make sure that doesn't happen the railroad keeps enough cars on hand to meet peak demands, and when they aren't all needed there has to be a place to put them, hence the storage yard.

The image of the Bailey Yard Storage yard above was taken in mid-July and clearly the the demand for coal to fuel the power plants is down, so the extra hopper cars used to carry that coal are in temporary storage.

But it is getting towards harvest season so the covered gondolas used for hauling grain have been largely distributed out to locations closer to various grain elevators.

But not to worry they'll be back here in the storage yard soon enough, waiting for next season's call-out.

My time at the Golden Spike Tower was limited by their closing hour of 7PM. And they do close the front doors at 7 but, quite generously I thought, they don't come up to the observation decks and start rushing you out right away. So it was well into evening before I left the tower and started thinking about a place to park for the night.

As you might expect of a major town out in the sparely populated plains, there are a couple campgrounds handy to North Platte, but that seemed a little elaborate for my needs.

There's also a couple large truckstops, both of which not only have decent parking for The Van, but also have a few dedicated RV slots for larger rigs not wishing to park among the trucks, but they were one exit east of town

while the Walmart was right there in town.

This 24 hour Walmart has a separate chunk of parking lot (left center above) over there towards the Dollar Store where they ask that you park overnight and that suited me just fine, even though they don't really care where I park The Van since it takes up no more than a normal parking slot.

This photo was taken at 6 the next morning from just behind The Van. There had been a little rain during the night, no serous storms but some of that rain was still lurking about.